A couple of years ago, I went through a particularly grueling heartbreak. My anxiety was so bad that on days when I didn’t get out of bed, my fitness tracker (which kept track of my heart rate) would still praise me for having done 15 hours of cardio.
I had recently pivoted away from freelancing to take a full-time job, but the last thing I wanted to do was leave my house. Especially in those first few weeks, though, it wasn’t possible to work from home. So I had to drag myself out the door and interact with other people whom I had only just met. This felt like a cosmic injustice.
It turns out that sometimes I need to be around other people. Data from my fitness tracker backed that up. When I was in the office, my heart rate would slow to a typical range. Even the experts agree that working from home can be a mixed bag. While the Harvard Business Review is asking, “Is It Time to Let Employees Work from Anywhere?” the World Economic Forum is cautioning that “Remote working could harm your mental health.”
But there are times, like now—and even then, only if we’re lucky—when remote work is our only option. So we all need to know how to work from home when circumstances, from an office relocation to a pandemic outbreak, give us no other choice.
I promise you can learn how to work from home in a way that works for you.
1. Get dressed … or don’t!
Just about every to-do list about how to work from home will tell you to get dressed as if you were going into the office. But there seems to be no concrete evidence that this advice is universally applicable. Marketing analytics manager Ginny Brown thinks this is advice worth re-examining.
“To me it feels like part of a whole class of beliefs that assign virtue to behaviors that align with modern corporate habits,” she explains. “And I’ve no doubt that it does work for some people, but it is amplified by the bias for what we think ‘real work’ looks like.”
I say it’s up to you what your ideal work-from-home wardrobe is. Maybe a favorite Sasha Velour T-shirt will fire you up and inspire you to do your best work. Or maybe you’ll learn that unless you put on dress shoes, you can’t get a single thing done. Just make sure that you stay presentable enough for any potential online meetings. Because you’re going to be having a lot of online meetings.
2. Stay in touch with coworkers
April Froncek, the communications manager for the nonprofit organization the Internet Society, has been working from home lately because she’s asthmatic. Her young daughter has also been home from school.
“Zoom meetings have been a lifeline,” Froncek says. “And my kiddo got a taste of how I get to travel the world each day when she sat in my lap during a meeting with colleagues in Mexico City, the U.K., Geneva, rural Canada, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.”
Video meetings are a great way to make sure projects keep chugging along while you’re working from home. But they don’t replace the relationship building of actually being around your coworkers. For that, you might want to turn to remote team-building activities like online gaming or movie nights.
You can also forge some new connections. Dig deep into your bravery and send a message asking, “Isn’t this wild?” to a coworker you’ve always wanted to befriend. Ask someone to be an accountability buddy, and check in with each other every day to make sure you’re staying on track. It’ll give you a chance to get to know each other.
3. Stay in touch with the world
Figuring out how to work from home is one thing, but what about the rest of humanity?
Scrolling through social media this weekend, I realized a lot of my friends were feeling upset and isolated. So I impulsively went to a virtual hangout, fired up the first season of Murder, She Wrote and passed around the link. A handful of folks logged in right away. Some just watched without talking, some heckled the ’80s fashion choices via webcam, and some typed their wisecracks into the chat. We only watched a couple of episodes, but we all felt better afterward.
If cozy murder mysteries (an actual genre!) are not your thing, you can also get friends together for some online karaoke or to play popular board games. If you’d like to feel more productive, you can sign up for an online course as a group; there are a ton of places offering free ones right now.
If you’re looking for new friends, check out this list of online book clubs. Your new internet best friend could be waiting to read a trashy novel with you while you take a break from the world.
4. Get some space
Staying connected is great. But if you’re living with someone who also has to work from home, you might be longing for solitude. Actor, director and writer Samora Smallwood is navigating that situation with her partner, Robert Ifedi, a photographer, actor and music producer.
“I love spending time together, but our work mode is so very different,” she says. “He likes loud music and to work late hours. I prefer quiet or mood music to write and work and to be in bed earlier.”
They keep things harmonious by communicating when one of them has an upcoming deadline or performance. “When my needs are taking priority, I will often order our favorite food as a goodwill gesture,” she says, “and vice versa.”
When you’re finished your workdays, you can replicate a date-night activity by taking a virtual tour of a museum.
5. Look for the helpers
There are lots of heartening examples of collective action right now. People have come together to offer everything from financial support for artists impacted by the virus to resources for managing virus-related anxiety. Independent digital campaign specialist Amara Possian is even dropping off supportive notes in her neighbors’ mailboxes and has posted a template to let others do the same.
S. Bear Bergman, the founder and CEO of children’s book publisher Flamingo Rampant, is running a story time every weekday morning on Facebook Live while schools are closed.
“It might be a slightly chaotic half hour, but it will also allow parents to have an affirming, engaging program to put their kids in front of and take a call or a shower,” he says. “We need mutual aid right now, more than ever, so this is what we’re doing to start.”
6. Make yourself proud
Years from now, we’ll all be talking about what we were doing during this international crisis. What do you want to be able to say? Do you want to be like the disaster profiteers reselling Lysol wipes on Amazon at a huge markup or, rather, like the butcher offering to drop off two weeks’ worth of food to anyone quarantined? Obviously you want to be a good person. So where should you start?
You can take what would be your commute time and use it on something like the Be My Eyes app, which lets volunteers help blind and low-vision people navigate a world they can’t see. You can use your saved lunch money on a site like Modest Needs, which allows donors to make a small donation that will tangibly keep a specific family out of financial peril.
It can be isolating to work from home, but it can also provide an opportunity to connect in unexpected ways. So now is your chance to be someone singing out of the window, inviting anyone who can hear you to sing along. Or at least someone who hears that singing and is brave enough to join in.